Kids With Agency: Rushmore and the Child Civilization

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This past weekend, my sister and I dove back into the wonderful world of Wes Anderson and came out with another gem. This was great, considering the previous film, The Royal Tenenbaums, rubbed us both the wrong way. We were starting to worry that all of the early Anderson would be that way. But Rushmore laid those worries to rest. It was a beautiful thing. And it brought to mind a theme common in some of our most beloved childhood cartoons.

Rushmore follows the character of Max Fischer, a fifteen-year-old attending Rushmore Academy. Max is something of a go-getter at his school, taking on more extracurricular activities than he probably has classes. On top of everything, Max is also a brilliant playwright, and he takes on the role of director in just about everything he sets out to do. He becomes the de facto leader of any activity he takes up and all those involved gladly follow him.

But I don’t want to write specifically about him, much as I loved his character. Instead, I wanted to focus on one of the film’s themes; a vibe it gives off that has worked well in many films and TV shows. That theme is the representation of kids having more agency in their world than would be usually assumed, or of a world run by kids — a Kid Civilization.

In Rushmore, that theme comes to us mostly through Max and his abundance of confidence. At one point, he spearheads a project to turn half of the school’s baseball diamond into an aquarium. Without ever consulting the headmaster. Or…anyone, really.

So that’s really funny. And it’s funny because that doesn’t happen. Most children probably wouldn’t try to coordinate the building of an aquarium, much less know how to go about doing that, and most construction companies probably wouldn’t trust or take work from some kid who approached them with a project. But it works for Max, partly because he’s Max and that adds to his character, but also because that’s possible in the world of Rushmore. There’s something about that situation that adds a level of whimsy that I think is generally endearing.

This is a theme that appears all over the place and it’s always fun. The Sandlot is fun because a group of kids gets things done on their own and in their own way. The premise of a kid-run world, or kids having more agency, is enjoyable for everyone involved. It’s fun for adults because it’s something that doesn’t happen so we find it funny. And it’s fun for kids to see that they can be treated as people too. Also because they are plotting our demise and wish to create a kid-ruled world. Beware.

After watching Rushmore, my sister pointed out that the film included this theme, and then I realized that it was a common thread throughout the things we watched and how we played as kids. On Saturday mornings, we would watch shows like Recess and Fillmore, both shows that present this theme of a “kid civilization.” One features a normal group of kids who, at recess, are let loose into their own world with its own hierarchies and laws. The other features this incredible world where it seems like kids and adults have some kind of agreement that they police their own, and kids have this whole separate society. Fillmore was awesome. You should watch it. Even as an adult.

These ideas were attractive to us as kids, and I suspect these same themes are still present in media consumed by the kids of today. There was something about having the same rights and responsibilities and society as adults that seemed so cool and that, even as an adult, seems cool and fun, and at the very least humorous.

This trope of kids being more adult-like while still retaining all of their kid-ness is the backbone of Rushmore. It took me back to my childhood in the best way possible, and drew me into the world of the kids in the film without drawing attention to it. The fact that the “kid society” is a thing creates its own novelty. It doesn’t need to be helped along, and Wes Anderson knows that.

Bam. Another Anderson hit. All that’s left now is Bottle Rocket. Fingers crossed that Tenebaums is an outlier. If so, I’ll either be really pleased that this was such an enjoyable filmography, or incredibly upset that this man is so good at making films.

— Mike Egan, Film Blogger

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